An introduction to my identity-specific critique of the cultural landscape
In my most recent class in graduate school, I studied cultural geography as part of Cal State University's Humanities program. In essence, cultural geography examines the way human culture and activity shape the modern landscape. The conclusion of this class taught me that there is no single objective reality and that every depiction of the landscape and the world is through the lens of a specific identity and set of experiences. These depictions have shaped the way humans have seen the world throughout history. They also shape our accepted view of American and world history, as well as our collectively agreed-upon reality.
The text used for this class was Cultural Geography: Environments, Landscapes, Identities, Inequalities, by William Norton and Margaret Walton-Roberts. Each week the class was asked to objectively critique a corresponding chapter of this text, as well as supplementary sources. Citations for each reference will be at the end of each piece. Week 1 addressed keywords and definitions within the discipline. It also addressed group identity, how war affects the landscape, and parts of identity. All chapters, interestingly, address the inadequacies of language in the discipline and beyond. This is a recurring theme in my writing as it is something that has always interested me both as a writer and as a curious mind.
Here is part 1 of the 5-part discussion of cultural geographical concepts as they relate to my personal, professional, and academic lives.
An Identity-Specific Analysis of Cultural Geography Concepts, Part I
This week's readings on the study of landscape, geography, and the cultural relationships with those applied directly to my experiences in a couple of ways. Firstly, in that I have always been an activist and environmentalist. I believe the explanation of the evolution of knowledge in geography and defining its parameters has helped us better understand ourselves as a species, especially in relation to the world around us. Secondly, the scholarship made me think more in-depth about the ways in which the world's militaries shape the landscape, affect world cultures, and continue to reshape the landscape even when they no longer occupy a space. Thirdly, Carl Sauer's writing on the morphology of landscape gave me the language to describe what I believe to be a more widespread human issue: the inability of humanity to view and understand itself as an active member in an ecological landscape, not apart from it, superior to it, or the model of comparison between the two. As I work on developing my own manuscript addressing the intersectional challenges of capitalism, climate change, and constructed racial hierarchies, Sauer's wisdom rings uncannily true to my ears. I should also preface the body of this essay by acknowledging that I have a diverse professional background, and much of this week's reading connected with my experiences as a certified personal trainer, a writer, a soldier, an activist, environmentalist, and an academic, and I will mention those connections throughout.
As a writer, one of the most interesting aspects of chapter one in this week's reading for me was the difference in definitions for the field of cultural geography itself. More specifically, and interestingly, Norton and Roberts wrote about disparities in the definitions of both the terms "culture" and "landscape." I frequently find that in the social and natural sciences, as well as in philosophy, government, and many other aspects of modern life, inadequacies in language account for much of the disagreement between scholars, scientists, and experts in their respective fields. I always have some difficulty when I approach a piece of scholarship, and it begins with defining the basic concepts "for the purposes of this essay/book/research/etc." It always causes me stress to know that the slight variations in interpretations of each concept are enough to extrapolate massive disagreements in later scholarship. For this reason, I was a little discontented about the need for Norton and Roberts to define such foundational terms as culture and landscape. But as we know, establishing a baseline understanding and building theory from it is a standard scientific methodology, a potentially flawed practice that I think Sauer indirectly addresses in “The Morphology of Landscape.” The explanation of language as a symbology within which the meanings manifest in terms of context and interaction, and not as stand-alone facts, was encouraging to read later in chapter 4 of the text.
I was also happy to read the overall rejection of the antiquated idea of environmental determinism, for two reasons. First, because the health sciences have made a very similar redirection from the once-popular notion of genetic determinism (similar in principle) toward the understanding that epigenetics affects overall health and genetic expression in a similar fashion. To summarize, we now believe that lifestyle behaviors, and not a predetermined set of unchangeable genetic codes, determine the likelihood of expression for the vast majority of chronic illnesses, even if a propensity for them is inherited. As an activist who is passionate about environmental health, public health, and their intersections, realizing the parallels between the scholarly rejection of environmental determinism and genetic determinism makes me hopeful. I am hopeful that humanity is beginning to realize just how massively our activities, down to the many arbitrary choices and thoughts we have daily, contribute to the change, and often destruction, of both the physical world and our bodies. Sauer's writing made me further optimistic that scholars are increasingly recognizing that studying individual academic fields creates few solutions for modern global issues unless considered seriously as part of a system, or more accurately, a system of systems. A more interdisciplinary approach to humanity's issues is beneficial for everyone.
The landscape school of thought from chapter two of Cultural Geography made me reflect on my experience in the Army. For more than 16 years, I have traveled the country, hopping from base to base and experiencing both local cultures and the peculiar subculture that encompasses the United States military. I have often explored local culture and landscape as a curious traveler and have also noted the unique cultural patterns of servicemembers and their families, regardless of the location. I have witnessed the ways an Army can mobilize, resettle, and shape the physical and cultural landscapes very quickly, as well as the lasting impacts they leave on cultures long after they leave. Two examples that came to mind were the very specific ways in which military bases are constructed and the ways they shape the landscape/culture loop, and the obvious and immediate ways that advanced weaponry changes both the physical landscape and the local culture, permanently. In case you are unfamiliar, military posts are constructed to be self-sufficient cities that can be locked down during national/regional emergencies, containing all the amenities and privileges a middle- to upper-middle-class family would need to feel secure and empowered, both physically and socially. They also establish their own borders and boundaries, including reserving many hundreds of acres of surrounding forest/desert/area, which are then engineered specifically for different types of combat training. As a soldier who has witnessed the destructive and forceful power of an Army across landscapes, I was relieved to read that Sauer stated the importance of recognizing the scale of human behavioral impact on the physical and cultural landscape, instead of the other way around.
Carl Sauer’s writing was my favorite, and the one I connected with on a deeper level. I mentioned I am an activist, environmentalist, and writer, but I am a science nerd at heart and care more about deep thought and ruminating on humanity's biggest challenges than almost anything else in life. I loved “The Morphology of Landscape” because Sauer repeatedly recognized a few concepts, which, as mentioned previously, address my biggest hang-ups with the scientific method and a scientific approach to scholarship. While I fully recognize its merit, it drives me a little insane every time I recall that everything in science is theoretical and that even the most well-thought scholarly conclusions assume that something foundational is true, only because we have yet to disprove it. Sauer addressed this indirectly when he wrote, "Yet though it is idle to seek in most of this literature a "system which makes clear the relation of the phenomena" we cannot dispose of all of it as haphazard in content" (39). It was my interpretation that Sauer was explaining that while he may not be able to articulate the mechanisms of the culture-landscape system/relationship, we cannot deny the correlations in the data. They indicate an intricate system in which culture affects landscape and landscape affects culture, to a lesser degree, in a dynamic feedback loop. I also loved that Sauer frequently reinforced the concepts of interconnectivity among systems and issues. This is my personal perspective of today's global challenges, and how activism becomes most effective when addressing those as inter-related systems of challenges. When Sauer wrote, "Every landscape has individuality as well as relation to other landscapes, and the same is true of the forms that make it up," I couldn't help but apply the same theories to different systems of oppression worldwide and the intersectional identities that participate in those systems.
Massey's explanations of the relation of space and time, with space being just as dynamic and influential as time, provoked curiosity in the physics-enthusiast in me. For the record, I think her analysis from the physics perspective was incomplete. She failed to mention the work of either Schrodinger or Heisenberg, whose quantum mechanical theories were also published in the late 1920s and were highly applicable to the arguments she was trying to make for the relevance of space and how to potentially describe it (p 76-77). I felt it was a missed opportunity, but overall, her argument was very engaging and I can’t disagree with her.
In hopes that I haven't bored you too much while still meeting the rubric criteria for essay 1, I will summarize and conclude with the following points: 1. Cultural geography seems like a field that relates closely to my interests and experiences, and 2. As an activist and future hopeful Anthropologist, I can see this being an exciting new field of study that will build both my knowledge and ability to create positive change in the world. While I hadn't previously had any exposure to the concept of cultural geography and what "human geography" has encompassed since the early twentieth century, I am excited to see that there is more depth to the material than I expected and look forward to learning more.
Norton, WIlliam & Roberts, Margaret Walton. Cultural Geography: Environments, Landscapes, Identities, Inequalities, 3rd Ed. Oxford University Press, 2014. Chapter 1
Massey, Doreen. Politics and Space Time. 2020.